Northampton school cuts eyed as $1.2M budget gap looms

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 03-08-2023 4:13 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton Public Schools are looking to increase classroom sizes, move around staff and make cuts to special education in order to make up for a $1.2 million deficit in its proposed school budget for next fiscal year.

The school’s proposed budget for fiscal 2024, which begins July 1, is $37.7 million, a 7.4% increase from the current fiscal year. The increase mostly comes from required cost-of-living adjustments made to staff salaries. City and state contributions to the school budget, however, would amount to $36.5 million, thus resulting in the deficit.

“If we don’t absorb the deficit ... it’s just going to grow,” said Bobbie Jones, business administrator for NPS, speaking remotely at a hybrid meeting on Monday to discuss the budget. “So at some point we need to make some cuts in order to keep up with the times, or get the state to fund us the way they should.”

Reductions are recommended across all six schools in the school system as well as in districtwide and special education funding.

The proposed cuts include elimination of a sixth grade special educator at JFK Middle School and a paraeducator at Leeds Elementary School who works with special needs children.

At Northampton High School, class sizes are expected to increase with a reduction of three full-time equivalent positions, although staff will be moved to other schools rather than face job cuts, according to Gwen Agna, vice chair of the School Committee.

The cuts in special education also come as the number of individual education plans (IEPs) in the district have ticked upward over the past five years, as has the percentage of students with disabilities and a higher number of special education students compared to statewide figures.

Enrollment rates overall for NPS have remained stagnant, with total enrollment across the school systems down about 7% since 2014.

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Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, who chairs the School Committee and attended Monday’s meeting, criticized the state for not providing enough educational aid for the district, despite a disproportionate increase in the requirements for school spending.

According to the district, the required school spending increased by 4.4%, while Chapter 70 aid from the state increased only 1% for the new fiscal year.

“That was not a welcome thing to see,” she said. “We have to fight to make sure that we get some of what is desperately needed here in this district.”

Agna echoed the mayor’s sentiments, noting that Northampton has perpetually ranked last among all 136 Massachusetts cities in terms of the amount of Chapter 70 funding received since 1993, when the state passed the Education Reform Act.

She called on members of the community to “bombard” state Sen. Jo Comerford with concerns ahead of a Joint Ways and Means Committee hearing on Monday at UMass Amherst to discuss education and local aid, of which Comerford is chairing.

“I understand that nobody’s going to want to switch places with us and become 136th,” she said. “But I also think it’s time for the Legislature to look at this. It’s been since 1993, it’s outdated now, and I’m hoping the Legislature would consider changing it.”

With the budget unveiled, the School Committee will vote to approve the budget, or to make changes before doing so, at a later committee meeting.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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